What Is DRM Software and why you need it

DRM software provides publishers and retailers with a wide variety of options to set rules. If a retailer runs a subscription service, it could require subscribers to renew their song licenses every month.

A site or music label could also allow consumers to download a song, but only for an extra charge. And an e-publisher could allow you to share a book with a friend by making available a single copy that can be passed along but not copied.

Significant problems could arise, however. One of the biggest: Not all DRM software runs on all players. After all, the companies that write the software are competitors. And for now, they’d rather fight for market share than make life less confusing for consumers.

If for example, you buy a song protected by IBM’s software, it won’t run in Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, which only plays Microsoft-protected files. To listen to the IBM-protected music, you’d have to obtain another player.

Ultimately, some player makers might run all DRM software on virtually any music-playing device, but such universality would require scores of business deals and an enormous amount of technical work. Beyond that, consumers may be forced to upgrade their portable players to accommodate DRM, something they may be unwilling to do. And no one really knows if DRM software can actually secure files. Few DRM-encrypted digital downloads have been available for long, so hackers haven’t had much of a chance to find weak spots.

Why bother?

Sensitive Secrets
Doctors, lawyers, and DRM. Digital rights management technology can do more than just control who listens to a Radiohead track; it can also control who sees and edits sensitive business documents such as budgets, medical records, and even trade secrets.

For example, McGuireWoods, a national law firm based in Richmond, Va., uses DRM software to ensure that opposing lawyers do not misuse the documents they obtain during litigation, says Rodney Satterwhite, the firm’s general counsel for knowledge management. “We get paid to worry,” Satterwhite says.

Rather than rely on blind faith that its opponents will act in good faith, the firm protects trade secrets with Authentica’s PageRecall software, which converts documents into specially encrypted Adobe Acrobat files. Using PageRecall, McGuireWoods can ensure that only the opposing lawyer herself can open the file. Meanwhile, the firm can block her from copying or printing it, say, for her client’s product development team. The firm can make the documents totally unreadable after the litigation ends, Satterwhite says.

Protecting business information with encryption is not new, of course, but DRM presents a more versatile set of options than encryption’s simple, “Joe can open this budget plan but Phil cannot.” DRM also enables more precise use and distribution of information.

Certain parts of a protected medical record, for example, would be visible to everyone who has access to it, but sensitive sections could be read only by the patient and his doctor.

Versatile as it is, DRM may never be a really big hit in business, says Forrester Research analyst Eric Scheirer. It may be more trouble than it’s worth unless privacy and security are absolutely paramount.
On the other hand, hackers may not even bother to crack DRM encryption because it’s so easy to pirate songs and movies, says Forrester Research analyst Eric Scheirer. Twelve-year-olds can easily “rip” songs to distribute far and wide. And better compression and cheaper bandwidth will make movies an increasingly attractive target.

And better compression and cheaper bandwidth will make movies an increasingly attractive target. Scheirer argues that such end runs by consumers will eventually kill the retail prospects of DRM. Instead, publishers may use it to syndicate content, or to retain control over retail pricing. In the end, DRM may prove more useful for protecting certain medical records, legal documents, and sensitive corporate memos.

Nevertheless, publishers seem confident that DRM will solve the piracy problem. On-demand trial programs would never have drawn participation from studios such as MGM without DRM technology, says Liz Greene. “DRM is vital,” says David Bishop, president and COO of Home Entertainment at MGM. “We can make [piracy] difficult enough that someone won’t spend 150 hours of their life breaking into something that they could have purchased for $3.99 or $4.99.”

“DRM is vital,” says David Bishop, president and COO of Home Entertainment at MGM. “We can make [piracy] difficult enough that someone won’t spend 150 hours of their life breaking into something that they could have purchased for $4.99 or $5.99.”

The industry’s confidence in DRM, of course, makes perfect sense. No sizable company would do business without an army of lawyers, so why not enlist an army of virtual ones, too?